Forbes magazine's list of America's Top Colleges for 2013 is notable for what's not in the top slot: an Ivy League school.
The distinction of being No. 1 this year goes to Stanford University (alma mater of Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer). The No. 2 is Pomona College, a small liberal arts school in Southern California.
A slightly more diverse pool of "top" schools doesn't make it easier for middle-class students to afford an elite education, though, and although the rankings take future earnings into account, they don't illuminate where surgeons, judges and other highly paid professionals went to school.
The Ivies, the East Coast schools that have reigned supreme for the past two centuries, still pick up four of the top 10 spots—Princeton, Yale and Columbia are Nos. 3 through 5, respectively, and Harvard is No. 8—and all are in the top 20. But schools on the West Coast have proved they are competitive. Stanford and Pomona climbed from Nos. 23 and 20, respectively, in five years, and the top-ranked public school on the list is the University of California, Berkeley.
This may reflect a diversification in the assessment of what constitutes a "top" school, and perhaps an infatuation with Silicon Valley and the technology sector.
So-called STEM jobs get a lot of attention, but they make up only about 6 percent of the job market, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
(Read more: Student-loan rates at 9%: That's a better deal?)
"They're very important jobs … in part because of who's pushing for them—the high-tech industry," Carnevale said. "There's another 94 percent of the workers who need jobs."
Although 3.75 percent of a school's rank is determined by the number of students who get Ph.D.s, "the real metric is earnings," he said. "What they should be focusing on is professional degrees ... any kind of doctorate that has an occupational attachment."
But paying for degrees in hopes they lead to high-income jobs has become more difficult. Two-thirds of students now graduate with an average debt of $26,600, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).
(Read more: Who pays for college education? Not mom and dad)
Each of the top 10 schools costs more than $50,000 a year, with the exception of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Students there pay with a different commitment: five years of military service after graduation.
Forbes does factor student debt in its ranking formula, which accounts for 17.5 percent of a ranking's weight. TICAS President Lauren Asher finds it lacking, though.
"It doesn't appear to include the share of students who graduate with debt or their average debt when they graduate, which are better indicators of what your debt expectations should be," Asher said. More detailed information about each school's individual debt profile is included in its summary listing, but it's not part of the weighted ranking that separates top schools from the rest of the pack.
(Read more: NY tax break hopes to draw businesses to campuses)
When Forbes started ranking schools in 2008, debt wasn't included in the criteria at all.
"At the time, I think the debt issue and the financial issues were a little less prominent in the discussion," said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "It's become a bigger issue."
The list remains dominated by more-expensive private institutions, with only one state school (Berkeley) in the top 25. Forbes does compile a "best value" list, but it doesn't take a 4.0 GPA to figure out which one college administrators would rather be on; Forbes even dubs its top 100 list "the only schools that matter."
These lists feed into a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop that Carnevale said makes it increasingly difficult for other states to compete. "It's sort of a shame because building those elite public [schools] is really a remarkable achievement," he said.
—By Martha C. White, NBC News contributor